The Birthplace of Henry VII: Inside the Tudor Stronghold of Pembroke Castle

Looming  over Milford Haven on the South West tip of Wales, the foreboding Norman battlements of Pembroke Castle – one of the holdings of the powerful Jasper Tudor – was long known to be the 1457 birthplace of Henry Tudor – the future Henry VII of England – son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. Not only was it from Pembroke that the first Tudor king sprang, but it was from Pembroke that his uncle, Jasper, kept the Lancastrian banner flying, and from Pembroke where the four-year old Earl of Richmond was eventually taken into custody by William Herbert, a Yorkist loyalist who replaced Jasper as Earl of Pembroke as chess pieces left the board in the Wars of the Roses.

However, little was known of this turbulent time until aerial photography by Toby Driver of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments (Wales) revealed parchmarks in the grass – irregular growth – discovered evidence of the outer ward building where Henry may have been born. With the permission and support of the Pembroke Castles Trust, a geophysical survey was then carried out by Dyfed Archaeological Trust, with assistance from Tim Southern and TF Industries Ltd and funding by the Castle Studies Trust.

Archaeological Consultant on the project Neil Ludlow arranged and co-ordinated the survey work, and the report. He is currently producing a monograph on medieval Pembroke – in which all findings will be fully-discussed – which should be published in a couple of years. We spoke to Ludlow to find out how this discovery came about and just what role Pembroke Castle played in the rise of the Tudor dynasty.

An aerial view of Pembroke Castle shows clear parchmarks in the grass. Crown Copyright RCAHMW, AP_2013_5162.
An aerial view of Pembroke Castle shows clear parchmarks in the grass. Crown Copyright RCAHMW, AP_2013_5162.

What do we know about the Outer Ward buildings from the survey on the site?

Aerial photography, in 2013, revealed ‘parchmarks’ in the outer ward – ie. where grass is both shorter and drier over buried walls. As a result, a geophysical survey was undertaken over the entire castle, using magnetometry, resistivity and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). The outer ward parchmarks registered well in the survey, and seem to belong to a winged, H-plan hall-house. It can be identified with a building that was partially excavated in the 1930s, but without record – all we have is two photographs, which show walls and a possible cess-pit.

But this is the building that is significant regarding Henry Tudor. All the evidence so far amassed suggests that it was of a form typical of the period 1450-1550. Jasper Tudor (Henry’s uncle), earl of Pembroke 1452-61, and again 1485-95, was the first resident earl at Pembroke for over 100 years, and there were no resident earls after his death in 1495. Therefore, Jasper is the most likely builder of the winged hall-house. However, it does remain a possibility that it may have been built by the Herberts, who held Pembroke during Yorkist rule between 1461 and 1485 – ie. after Henry Tudor’s birth. Archaeological excavation may resolve some, if not all of these issues – particularly if the 1930s excavations were not too destructive, and some dating evidence was left behind.

The geophysical survey revealed evidence for a number of other buildings in the outer ward, but not as many as one might expect – only one or two of them are likely to be medieval. The outer ward appears to have been largely empty during the Middle Ages, and indeed this may have been deliberate – as an open area for assembly (military and/or civil), and/or as a high-status area for gardens, staging of pageantry etc. – which would fit in with the presence of a high-status winged house in the outer ward.

When was the outer ward torn down and why?

The curtain walls and towers of the outer ward still stand, and are in an excellent state of preservation. It’s the medieval internal buildings that have disappeared. We don’t know when this happened, but my suspicion is that it was during the Civil War when Pembroke was a major garrison – it would have made defence, in the gunpowder age, easier if men and matériel could me moved around quickly without obstruction (the castle was badly damaged by Cromwell after its surrender, but this was confined to the towers).

However, the remains of some of the walls belonging to the winged hall-house, and a possible doorway, survived until around 1810 and are shown on old maps and prints.

A recreation of Pembroke Castle by Neil Ludlow as it might have appeared at the beginning of the 15th century, although there are slightly more outer ward buildings than would have been the case © Neil Ludlow

To what extent do these discoveries match with accounts of Henry Tudor’s birth?

The best-known account regarding Henry’s birthplace was written by the Tudor antiquarian John Leland, who visited Pembroke Castle in the 1530s and tells us that ‘in the outer ward, I saw the chamber where Henry VII was born’.

Apart from fragmentary remains, the outer ward was empty of buildings by the 18th century, when historians first started serious study. They consequently searched in vain for this ‘chamber’. Most opted for one of the domestic buildings in the inner ward – in defiance of Leland, who was writing during a period when the castle was still in use. Later on, it was suggested by Joseph Cobb, who partially restored Pembroke Castle in the 1880s, that the birth took place in one of the outer ward towers – which was subsequently named the ‘Henry VII Tower’. However, this tower was primarily defensive – it was a public space, and links two wall-passages within the outer curtain. As the castle was almost certainly garrisoned during the 1450s, it would have been a very busy space as well. It is unlikely that Lady Margaret Beaufort, a high-status relative of the resident earl, gave birth to her first child in such a martial, and masculine setting. So the discovery of what appears to be a near-contemporary, high-status, winged hall-house may provide the answer. It is much more the kind of building in which the birth would have taken place.

As the castle was a centre of regional government, the inner ward buildings had become mainly given over to administrative use and accommodation for the admin officers and staff – while, because of absenteeism, the higher status residential accommodation in the inner ward had been neglected and was in poor repair.

Interestingly, the Welsh-language chronicle of Elis Gruffudd, completed in 1552, locates the birth ‘in the tower which is named the Boar’s Tower within Pembroke Castle’. But ‘tower’ was, in literature of the period, a generic term for any part of a castle, and the suspicion that the account may be a literary device, for moral purposes, is heightened by the fact that Richard III’s personal badge was the boar.

What was the significant of Pembroke Castle to the Tudor family? Why was it an appropriate birthplace for the future Henry VII?

The castle may have had no real significance for Jasper Tudor were it not for the Wars of the Roses. Most of the earls during the 14th and earlier 15th centuries had been absentee, and Jasper may have followed in their footsteps. However, this absenteeism meant that the buildings had been neglected, and on receiving Pembroke in 1452 Jasper may have commissioned the winged hall-house, as his personal accommodation should he ever wish to visit.

When he did visit, in November 1456, it was to deal with the conflicts that had broken out in west Wales in the wake of the Wars of the Roses. These had already led to the death of his brother, Edmund (Henry’s father), and the volatile political situation meant that Edmund’s widow Margaret Beaufort was in a very vulnerable position. So she was brought to Pembroke to join her brother-in-law Jasper, who was also her guardian. There she gave birth to Henry on 28 January 1457.

The site of Pembroke Castle being surveyed in 2013
The outer ward of Pembroke Castle being surveyed in 2013 © Dyfed Archaeological Trust

She didn’t stay that long afterwards, marrying Henry Stafford in 1458. However, it’s possible (perhaps likely) that Henry stayed with his uncle, as he became Jasper’s ward upon his mother’s remarriage. Jasper was at Pembroke, intermittently, until the Lancastrian defeat at Towton in 1461, after which he went on the run, mainly staying in France until 1470. The wardship of his nephew Henry was acquired by the Yorkist William Herbert, who was also granted Pembroke in Jasper’s stead.

How significant was the later loss of Pembroke Castle in the aftermath of Towton?

The Lancastrian reverses, Jasper’s loss of all his estates and influence, and his exile, are probably more significant – particularly Jasper’s second exile after the brief Lancastrian restoration of 1470-71. After their defeat at the Battle of Tewkesbury (3 May 1471), Jasper and Henry Tudor fled first to Pembroke, and thence to France. It was here that they made the alliances and built up the contacts that enabled Henry to launch his campaign of 1485, and take the throne.

After Henry’s victory at Bosworth, and coronation, Jasper Tudor regained all his old titles and lands, but it’s possible that he never again set foot in Pembroke – his activities mainly revolved around the court, and his major estates, manors and houses in the West Country and southeast Wales.

For more incredible stories of medieval monarchy, pick up the new issue of History of Royals or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price.